12 Techniques to Improve Your Writing in 2015

It must be frustrating for beginning writers who want to hone their craft, but aren’t given much direction beyond “write every day,” and “read a lot.” It’s been my experience that if you want to improve your writing, you have to start with one tactic and do it every day.

But which ones? What order should you do them in? Are they all important?

Here are the 12 big ones I see a lot of beginning writers need to work on. We’ll start simply and move from there.

Start with the first one, work on it all through January. Make it a habit, and learn to not only recognize it in your writing (and others’), but learn to recognize it before you put it down on paper. Practice the technique on everything you write, not just your Special Private Writing Time. In your blog posts, your emails, your monthly TPS reports. Everywhere.

As you work these writing muscles, you’ll find you can improve your writing everywhere you put pen to paper and finger to keyboard.

  1. Get rid of That: This is the first place that I have most new writers start. This is one of the worst habits that we get into as writers, but it’s easy to spot and break. It’s not incorrect, but it makes your writing loose and clumsy. If you can strike it out, and not affect the sentence, do it.
  2. Avoid other filler words: This is much harder to do. I’ve spent the last 15 years of my writing career working on this particular habit, and I’m still not great at it. I usually take 2 – 3 edits before I’m satisfied with the final result.
  3. Eliminate adverbs and adjectives: Don’t describe verbs, use a descriptive verb. If you use words that end in -ly, chances are, you can get rid of them, and replace the offending verb too. Instead of saying someone “eats noisily,” say “they chomped their food.” So it goes with nouns. Rather than describing the noun, like “the thick hamburger,” rewrite the sentence to show how thick it was. This brings us to our next technique. . .
  4. You can learn from Tom Waits as a way to improve your writing.

    Tom Waits in Prague, 2008 (Wikimedia, Creative Commons)

  5. Show, don’t tell: Eliminating adverbs is fairly easy. Eliminating adjectives takes a little more work. Instead of describing how thick a hamburger is with a bunch of adjectives, try this: “Jason always bragged about the size of the hamburgers at this place, but I never believed him until I heard my jaw pop when I tried to eat one.”
  6. Metaphors & similes: Once you’ve started down the slippery slope of showing-not-telling, start using metaphors and similes. They help you explain complex ideas or add punch to your writing. For example, Tom Waits’ song “Putnam County” is rife with powerful metaphors. He describes roads as “asphalt dance floors,” talks about women with “swizzle-stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools,” and how a band “moaned in pool hall concentration.”
  7. Practice Dialog: The ultimate in showing-not-telling. When our kids were little, we told them they would learn a lot more by listening to conversations than interrupting and asking questions. You can reveal ideas and thoughts to your readers without ever explaining a thing just by making them pay attention to conversations. Learn to master dialog.
  8. Stop talking to your reader: You’re writing to them, but don’t talk to them. Stop nudging them with parenthetical asides, like you’re sharing a secret (I know, I know, you’re probably asking “what do you mean?”) <-- THIS! This right here! Stop doing that! It adds extra words to the piece, and doesn’t actually help the story. Plus, it’s an amateur move.
  9. Write like people talk: Like Elmore Leonard said, if what we learned in school interferes with our writing, tough shit. It means to adopt an informal tone. Use contractions and end sentences with prepositions. It means to use words normal people use, not markety language or legalese.
  10. No more business jargon: Do you speak in business jargon? Do you say phrases like “we have to recontextualize mission-critical relationships?” If you don’t, then don’t write that way either.If you do, this is why no one likes you.
  11. No infinitives or gerunds: If you have a habit of ending words with -ing, edit and shorten to eliminate them. They don’t add to your writing, but their absence can enhance it.
  12. Avoid nonsexist language: I hate he/she and him or her, and s/he is not even a word. Nonsexist writing can be some of the worst and hardest to read. Instead, alternate between male and female examples and terms. If you use a “he” in one example, use a “she” in the next. Or, use the singular “they.” Writers shouldn’t be judged just because they chose one gender over the other, as long as they balance it out. If you alternate between “he” and “she” over your general body of work, you’ll be okay.
  13. Use specific examples, not vague generic ideas: As my friend and owner of The Geeky Press, Brad King, says “don’t tell me about a dog dying. Tell me about the day your dog died.” If you call yourself a storyteller, this is the way to do it. People respond to actual stories, not vague babblings about lofty concepts.

Did I miss anything? What other techniques have you done to improve your writing? What would you suggest for next year? Leave a comment and let me know what writing techniques you want to work on.

Content Marketing the Kurt Vonnegut Way

One of the things I love about Kurt Vonnegut, and the reason I mention him in my writing talks, is his ability to create visual imagery in his writing.

I’ve been on a metaphors are better than similes kick lately — I’ll save that topic for another time — so I’ve been paying more attention to this in my reading. I saw an excerpt of a Kurt Vonnegut interview on a Paris Review blog post that reminded me of what makes him such an important writer.

In this particular segment, he’s talking about a 240 millimeter Howitzer he had done basic training on, the largest weapon in the US military at that time (WWII). The interviewer said, “It must have been a thrill to fire such a weapon.”

Vonnegut said:

Not really. We would put the shell in there, and then we would throw in bags of very slow and patient explosives. They were damp dog biscuits, I think. We would close the breech, and then trip a hammer which hit a fulminate of mercury percussion cap, which spit fire at the damp dog biscuits. The main idea, I think, was to generate steam. After a while, we could hear these cooking sounds. It was a lot like cooking a turkey. In utter safety, I think, we could have opened the breechblock from time to time, and basted the shell. Eventually, though, the howitzer always got restless. And finally it would heave back on its recoil mechanism, and it would have to expectorate the shell. The shell would come floating out like the Goodyear blimp. If we had had a stepladder, we could have painted “Fuck Hitler” on the shell as it left the gun. Helicopters could have taken after it and shot it down.

What caught my eye about Vonnegut’s answer is the way he describes how slow and inefficient the firing system was. He didn’t just say “it was slow” or fire off some witty simile about molasses and icebergs. Instead he took 13 sentences — using 15 metaphors and 2 similes — to explain how slow the gun was.

  • He referred to the “slow and patient explosives” as damp dog biscuits. That gives me an idea of the consistency and feel of the explosives, as well as their effectiveness. It also made me laugh, because I like the hard consonant sounds of the D’s, P’s, and K (in biscuit).
  • He said the sound was like “cooking a turkey,” and then followed it up with imagery of “basted the shell.” The fact that he said they could have done that in utter safety also shows how slow the process was.
  • The word “expectorate” means more than just “spit out.” It’s that thing old men do when they make that deep snk-k-k-k-k in the back of their throat and then spit. His term makes me think of old men retching up a gob of spit, which speaks to the thickness and fullness of what the gun was firing.
  • The idea of the floating shell is reinforced by the idea of them painting the shell as it left the gun.

This is also how good stand-up comics work. They take a single idea, a single incident, or even a single conversation, and expand on it. Vonnegut took “the gun was slow to fire” and turned it into a 165 word epic description of just how slow the firing process actually was.

As bloggers and content marketers, you can use the same techniques to convey ideas in your own writing. Rather than a detailed, lengthy, and technically accurate description, try using metaphors and similes to make your writing more easily understood. And interesting.

What Tom Waits Can Teach You About Powerful Writing

Tom Waits isn’t just a musician, he’s a lifestyle choice. The growly-voiced singer-songwriter has created some of the most powerful, haunting music I’ve ever poured into my ears. Waits does it with simple, sad music, but more importantly, with a mastery of poetic language that would make Lord Byron pull his hair out with envy.

Especially the metaphor. Waits’ music is filled with metaphors, which gives it the emotional impact and depth you just don’t get with the Single Ladies and Poker Faces of the world. (Most of today’s music has all the emotional complexity of a high school prom, but Waits is an in-depth, all-night discussion about the meaning of life.)

A couple months ago, I wrote about why metaphors make for more powerful writing than similes. I said:

I don’t like similes. They’re weak. They’re the pencil-necked milksop of literary devices. They say things are similar, but not quite that item. Life is like a box of chocolates, but not really.

Take a look at (this) example: “Men’s words are bullets.” That’s a powerful phrase. It doesn’t say they’re like bullets, that they remind people of bullets, or “words can hurt people sort of like bullets can hurt people.” That’s just smarmy, wishy-washy pap.

“Men’s words are bullets,” on the other hand, makes you feel the the emotional damage that can be done by words, feeling the piercing, crashing power of a bullet fired from a large gun.

I’ve been listening to Waits’ Nighthawks at the Diner album a lot lately. It’s my favorite Waits album, and carries my favorite Waits song, Putnam County.

Any writer who wants to learn about the power and grip of language should give this a listen, and pay careful attention to Waits’ use of language. A quick check showed only one simile in the entire piece, and the rest were metaphors.

If you want to master writing and create language that grabs you by the scruff of the neck and shakes you to pay attention, study these lyrics, listen to the song, and see if you can introduce this style into your own writing.

Putnam County, Tom Waits

I guess things were always kinda quiet around Putnam County
Kinda shy and sleepy as it clung to the skirts of the 2-lane
That was stretched out just like an asphalt dance floor
Where all the old-timers in bib jeans and store bought boots
Were hunkerin’ down in the dirt
To lie about their lives and the places that they’d been

And they’d suck on Coca Colas, yeah, and be spittin’ Day’s Work
Until the moon was a stray dog on the ridge and
And the taverns would be swollen until the naked eye of 2 a.m.
And the Stratocasters slung over the Burgermeister beer guts

And swizzle stick legs jackknifed over naugahyde stools
And the witch hazel spread out over the linoleum floors
And pedal pushers stretched out over a midriff bulge
And the coiffed brunette curls over Maybelline eyes
Wearing Prince Matchabelli*, or something
Estee Lauder, smells so sweet

And I elbowed up at the counter with mixed feelings over mixed drinks
As Bubba and the Roadmasters moaned in pool hall concentration
And knit their brows to cover the entire Hank Williams songbook
Whether you like it or not

And the old National register was singin’ to the tune of $57.57
And then it’s last call, one more game of eightball
Berniece’d be puttin’ the chairs on the tables
And someone come in and say, ‘Hey man, anyone got any jumper cables?’
‘Is that a 6 or a 12 volt, man? I don’t know…’

Yeah, and all the studs in town would toss ’em down
And claim to fame as they stomped their feet
Yeah, boastin’ about bein’ able to get more ass than a toilet seat

And the GMCs) and the Straight-8 Fords were coughin’ and wheezin’
And they percolated) as they tossed the gravel underneath the fenders
To weave home a wet slick anaconda of a 2-lane

With tire irons and crowbars a-rattlin’
With a tool box and a pony saddle
You’re grindin’ gears and you’re shiftin’ into first
Yeah, and that goddam Tranny’s just gettin’ worse, man

With the melody of see-ya-laters and screwdrivers on carburetors
Talkin’ shop about money to loan
And Palominos and strawberry roans

See ya tomorrow, hello to the Missus!
With money to borrow and goodnight kisses
As the radio spit out Charlie Rich, man,
and he sure can sing that son of a bitch

And you weave home, yeah, weavin’ home
Leavin’ the little joint winkin’ in the dark warm narcotic American night
Beneath a pin cushion sky
And it’s home to toast and honey, gotta start up the Ford, man

Yeah, and your lunch money’s right over there on the drainin’ board
And the toilet’s runnin’! Christ, shake the handle!
And the telephone’s ringin’, it’s Mrs. Randall
And where the hell are my goddamn sandals?
What you mean, the dog chewed up my left foot?

With the porcelain poodles and the glass swans
Staring down from the knickknack shelf
And the parent permission slips for the kids’ field trips
Yeah, and a pair of Muckalucks) scraping across the shag carpet

And the impending squint of first light
And it lurked behind a weepin’ marquee in downtown Putnam
Yeah, and it’d be pullin’ up any minute now
Just like a bastard amber Velveta yellow cab on a rainy corner
And be blowin’ its horn in every window in town

(Here’s a YouTube video of a different version of Putnam Conty than the one you’ll hear on Nighthawks at the Diner, but the lyrics are the same. Listen to it and read the lyrics again. You’ll get a sense of what Waits can do with language, and the power it can have to move people.

* Update: I have to thank Allison (see the comments below) for the correction on Prince Matchabelli. I originally had Prince Machiavelli in the lyrics, which I got from the original lyrics source, but apparently Matchabelli is an old dimestore makeup. I had always heard the name, but never paid much attention to it. And in the song, I always thought Waits was purposely butchering “Machiavelli,” (not to be confused with the Machiavelli (mock-ee-uh-velli) who wrote “The Prince”).

Want to Make Your Writing More Vivid? Use Metaphors

If you want to add some life to your writing, to give it breath and a heartbeat, use metaphors. They’re the lifeblood of any vibrant, vivid writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction.

I’ve been using metaphors in my writing with great success over the last several years. It marks a significant improvement in the quality of my writing, and I’ve garnered more and better opportunities. Whether there’s a connection between the two, I don’t know.

I’m a big fan of metaphors, and I like them better than similes. From the Greek, metaphora means to transfer or to carry over. It basically carries a comparison from one idea or item to another.

There is one difference between metaphors and similes: similes use the words like or as in them, metaphors do not.

Similes

  • Life is like a box of chocolates. (Forrest Gump
  • There was a great shout like the roaring of an airplane.
  • Similes are like metaphors, but only weaker.

Metaphors

I don’t like similes. They’re weak. They’re the pencil-necked milksop of literary devices. They say things are similar, but not quite that item. Life is like a box of chocolates, but not really.

Take a look at the last metaphor example: “Men’s words are bullets.” That’s a powerful phrase. It doesn’t say they’re like bullets, that they remind people of bullets, or “words can hurt people sort of like bullets can hurt people.” That’s just smarmy, wishy-washy pap.

“Men’s words are bullets,” on the other hand, makes you feel the the emotional damage that can be done by words, feeling the piercing, crashing power of a bullet fired from a large gun.

If you want to make your writing more powerful and add more life to your words, sprinkle some metaphors into your articles and watch what they’ll do for you.